These are fervid times in Oak Park politics. Between the proposed elimination of freshman honors classes at the high school, and the dust-up over free speech and identity politics at the village board, I can imagine that newcomers to the wacky world of our village find it confusing, even disturbing. Not to fear, for today I am here to provide you with a brief overview of our political landscape.
At the outset, it is important to remember that a majority of residents don’t really know or care about any of this. These folks have demanding jobs. They are raising families. They shop. They go to the doctors. They exercise. They read. They live.
The main reason people move to Oak Park is not because of its liberal politics. Cook County is about as blue as it gets. There are lots of diverse, liberal places to live in the area. People move here for a combination of reasons: proximity to Chicago, excellent public transportation, good schools and parks and housing stock. Plus there is stuff to do here — restaurants, churches, book groups, concerts, lectures. It is friendly for everybody — kids, seniors and pets. Local politics is a low priority for most of us. In fact, if it weren’t for this newspaper, like the tree falling in the uninhabited forest, no one would know anything.
There is a minority, though, who are engaged. Some people are passionate about sports, celebrity or collectibles. Others are passionate about politics, even more so following the election of Mr. Trump. We are not in Obamaland anymore, Dorothy. My theory on this: There isn’t really much you can do about these dark times given that Illinois is so very blue. Our Illinois senators and congressfolk need no encouragement. You can write or call them, march at the Civic Center, donate money or sport a sign or a button. Those things might be therapeutic, but you are egotistical, even delusional, to think that you can make a difference at the state or national level. Sorry.
But you have a better chance of making a difference at the village level. You can change the curriculum at the high school, or you can bemoan “oppression” in a village mission statement. You can support development or preservation.
Most of the engaged are “good liberals.” Liberalism is not only political, it’s temperament. Its DNA includes social reform, tolerance of human differences, reasoned debate and demonstration. Over the centuries, good liberals have done a lot of good. In the last hundred years in this country, liberals are responsible for building an admittedly imperfect social welfare support system that has reduced suffering for millions of Americans. The evolving inclusivity of all Americans is largely the result of the tireless efforts of “good liberals.” They realize perfect is the enemy of good, compromise is fundamental to result, and humans are flawed.
But some of the engaged are contemptuous of “good liberals.” They see them as part of the problem, not the solution. I’ll call them the New Left. For them, the pace of change is too slow. It needs to be speeded up. Those who dissent need to get with the program. Less evolution. More revolution. The group is more important than the individual. Your free speech is not part of their safe space. Their vision is the world as it ought to be, instead of the world as it is. Dreams can come true. Compromise is weakness.
This is an old story. In Russia before and after the Revolution, the Communists and the Socialists hated each other. Same was true in Germany, and the minority Nazis took advantage. Kind of like Sanders, Biden and Trump (gulp).
So the good liberals and New Left will battle it out in Oak Park in trench warfare for a few yards of political ground. It should be interesting. I just wish at the next election, the candidates will be explicit about their positions so that the electorate can make an informed choice. I believe, had the community known of a poorly vetted proposal to eliminate honors classes for freshmen, and a position that Oak Park was an “oppressive” polity, the election results would have been quite different.